Guest Column | October 16, 2020

The COVID-19 Employee Communications Budget: If You Slash, Will You Burn?

By Andrew Brown and Elizabeth Williams

COVID 19 Business As New Normal

There is an uncomfortable conversation taking place right now in the boardroom of every growth-focused software company across North America. If it hasn’t happened in your board room yet, it will soon. If the conversation goes well, you increase the likelihood that your company survives (and potentially thrives) in these difficult times. When it goes poorly, your company’s chances of weathering the storm that is COVID-19 plummets.

The conversation focuses on if, how, and when to stop funding employee communications. That’s because as the impact of the pandemic spreads throughout your business, leaders like you must find ways to reduce expenses while sustaining (or increasing) productivity. And, if your employee communications function has yet to prove that it contributes to your company’s goals, surely, no one would fault you for cutting it and reallocating resources to areas that more visibly keep your business going, right?

But let’s be honest with ourselves. Most software companies are pretty darn poor at measuring, never mind demonstrating, the impact of employee communications. In fact, this year’s Global State of Internal Communications report finds that number is well over 70 percent. According to the same report, when employee communications are measured, 66 percent of companies fail to include results in the dashboards of executives. So, does this mean slashing the employee communications function, its activities and its budget is a good idea for your business? Heck, if it’s not being measured and not being reported on, will anyone truly miss it?

To help you make the right decision about this with confidence, we need to quickly touch on three things:

  1. What makes working in COVID times especially disruptive for your employees.
  2. The role employee communications should play during this scary global pandemic.
  3. The consequences of pulling back on employee communications in COVID times.

Finally, we’ll identify elements of employee communications that are less critical than others and what parts you need to hang on to for dear life.

A New Kind Of Disruption For Your Employees

Regardless of how much you’ve relied on employee communications for ensuring your company has thrived during growth spurts, product launches, alliance activities, the change your workforce is experiencing due to COVID-19 is unlike any other in three critical ways:

Mortality is front and center. Whether someone in your business is infected with the virus or not, employees are truly scared. Not for their titles, not for their year-end bonuses, not for their job responsibilities, but for their very lives – and for the lives of their colleagues, friends, and family. This fear, while having become a bit more dulled since April, remains and will increase over the next several months as the spikes in the number of COVID cases spread across the country. Unless building your software poses an unusually high health risk, members of your workforce have never had to make the mental calculation of, “Do I do my job today or risk getting sick or dying?”

Uncertainty is off the charts. In building your business, you and your team have become experts at anticipating, and planning for, difficult scenarios. At the same time, you’ve hard-wired product innovation processes to keep you as nimble as possible, to fail fast, and to focus on winning sprints. None of that applies in COVID times. The uncertainty that you strive to squeeze out of your organization through systematic automation and Agile management is here with a vengeance. The result on your workforce and their output is devastating. Ongoing uncertainty and the resulting anxiety produce a measurably negative effect on cognitive capacity. In fact, the ability to take in and process information drops between four and six grade levels in each of us. In the workplace, increased uncertainty contributes to an upsurge in slow decision making, poor decisions, disruptive group behavior, loss of faith in leadership, and disengagement from the corporate mission.

There is no end in sight. Whenever you roll out a significant change in your organization, say, a new structure brought about by an expansion, there’s a recognized time horizon. Sure, only senior management knows the exact details of when the new teams and reporting structure kick in. But, schooled by your long-time employees, even the most junior members of your organization come to recognize the signs that such transformations are coming to their logical conclusion. For employees during COVID however, there aren’t recognizable signs indicating the impact of the virus on the business is over. That “when the dust settles” moment isn’t known – not by you nor your old guard. In fact, even devastating signs like downsizings, clients jumping ship, and delays of strategic initiatives don’t accurately indicate that the impact of COVID has reached its logical endpoint. With no end in sight, employees can experience “anticipatory grief” which means they feel a range of emotions associated with devastating grief like the death of a loved one – these emotions include sadness, anger, fear, loneliness, and guilt. To remain productive, positive, and innovative, however, human beings desperately need to know the circumstances that disrupt our work (or non-work) lives do have a concrete end date.

The New Role Of Employee Communications

At the beginning of 2019, Gartner concluded that growth-oriented companies should focus their employee communications toward achieving three priorities:

  • Drive employee engagement and alignment
  • Develop content strategy and message management
  • Overcome digital communication challenges

These priorities now seem almost quaint. The disruption caused by COVID has compelled organizations to re-think and re-deploy their employee communications on a completely different set of priorities, including:

  • Maintain and strengthen emotional connections. Employees are increasingly isolated and feeling burned out. Under these conditions, your workforce’s connection to your company’s purpose, to colleagues, to their day-to-day work tasks and processes, and to acceptable quality standards is weakening – even despite (or perhaps because of) the dramatic rise in video and conference calls. Your employee communications professionals need to reinforce the emotional connections that keep your workforce invigorated and committed to your company’s continued success.
  • Reinforce trust in leaders. Regardless of how trusted employers were before COVID, the need for employees to trust their employers (including their executives and managers) has grown dramatically during this time of personal anxiety and increased uncertainty. Employee communications need to get a handle on which leaders are trusted and by which employees. After all, employees’ thoughts, feelings, and behaviors will only be shaped by those people they truly trust. For some employee communications professionals, this will be a huge shift if their default had been to “persuade” or “influence” rather than help their leaders demonstrate they are worthy of trust. The reality is that employee communications professionals may lack the skills, authority, or internal credibility to speak truth to BS – which is often a stumbling block to building trust in leaders. If this is the case, they’ll need to leverage others within the organization or look outside of your company.
  • Measure the impact of employee communications. Employee communications professionals owe it to their executives, and to their colleagues, to shift attention from measuring communications “output” to tangible “outcomes”. That means measuring and reporting on how communications are shaping employees’ knowledge, sentiment and behaviors. A focus on measuring impact compels the employee communications function to become better at collecting and analyzing employees’ intentions, opinions, and actions. As a result, employee communications professionals need to become better at listening -- which includes one-on-one listening, group listening (i.e. group process analysis), and structured observation.
  • Ensure COVID lessons aren’t lost. Two years from now, many companies will have tried their best to forget the pains caused by the COVID pandemic. In so doing, they can unwittingly bury key lessons that would help them become more resilient, more adaptive, and more successful at dealing with future disruptions. The employee communications function needs to identify, capture, and disseminate these lessons so that they become part of the company culture. For example, employee communications professionals should become better at telling corporate stories that demonstrate what is truly valued by company executives.

What Happens When You Pull Back Employee Communications?

First things first. If your employee communications folks are simply churning stuff out that sounds or looks good but serves no real organizational goal, stop it; stop it now. Having poor employee communications is disastrous in any leader’s efforts to keep a business moving forward at the best of times. But, during a global pandemic, the stakes are even higher. Poor employee communications – i.e. employee communications that are ineffective, tone-deaf, or laced with BS – will damage your credibility as a business leader and torpedo your company’s brand as being innovative, energetic, or even viable.

So, when you combine the disruption your employees (and you/your fellow executives) are going through and the shifting focus of the employee function, does it make sense to slash the employee communications budget? Well, let’s consider what we do know about what happens when the employee function has its budget slashed.

When employee communications budgets and functions are slashed employees’ need for trusting leaders/supervisors and feeling connected to the company’s mission doesn’t go away. Nonetheless, when employee communications budgets are slashed, these priorities are typically ignored. Within weeks, sometimes days, negative rumors spread rapidly, and departments quickly become more isolated from one another.

Then, overworked leaders rush in, thinking they’re amazing at communicating and assuming they are viewed as credible sources of information. With the best intentions, they try to manage communications – usually with a handful of meetings and countless emails. Any emphasis on listening is short-lived – usually a survey or two – and little or no accommodation is made for the variety of stakeholders within the organization. Then, something happens like a new compliance requirement needs to be enforced or a new reporting structure needs to be rolled out. Busy executives simply can’t devote time to addressing these issues and they take themselves out of the process. HR is then expected to pick up the slack and take ownership of employee communications on top of their current responsibilities. However, HR rarely has the time and experience to plan, roll-out, and measure employee communications. The result: most employees feel isolated and quickly come to think that the organization doesn’t truly value them. That leads to lower productivity, lower innovation, and employees actively looking for their next employer.

What To Cut. What To Not.

If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably gun shy about slashing employee communications budgets. But it’s COVID times and you’ve got an ambitious leadership, a demanding board of directors, client/customers’ looking to defer payments (or exit), mounting overhead costs, and of course, an anxious workforce that you need to have firing on all cylinders. So, what part of employee communications is expendable?

Well, here’s what you should cut – now:

  • Any employee communications activities that have not been proven to support the new company priorities shaped by COVID.
  • Investments in communication automation that are meant to replace one-on-one or group communications.

And here’s what you should not cut – ever:

  • Employee communications activities aimed at getting an accurate read on employees’ feelings and behaviors.
  • Assessments (or audits) that help you understand the impact communications are having on your workforce.
  • Any communications activity that deliberately (or accidentally) builds trust in leaders and among teams

About The Authors

For over 25 years, Andrew Brown has helped SaaS/IaaS companies harness communications to thrive throughout pandemics, crises, mergers, acquisitions, expansions, downsizings, and global product launches. He is the author of the “Building strong business relationships” book series. He is cofounder of The Academy of Business Communications which trains fearless communicators and co-hosts of The Swear Jar podcast.

For over 20 years, Elizabeth Williams has worked with companies including ADP, Rogers, TELUS, The Beer Store, Constellation Software, Bank of Montreal, and Aon to help them tell their stories and engage employees and customers in meaningful conversations. She is co-author of The Fearless Communicator’s Guide to COVID-19, co-host of The Swear Jar podcast, and cofounder of The Academy of Business Communications which trains fearless communicators.